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Legal Methods

The basic techniques of legal analysis, writing and research.

Sources of Federal Legislative History

There are four major sources of federal legislative history:

  • The bills introduced in Congress

Changes in language and addition or deletion of specific provisions may shed light on the goal trying to be accomplished with the bill.  However, this is often considered an insufficient indication of legislative intent.

  • Hearings before committees or subcommittees

These consist of the testimony of experst and interested parties called to give their views on the bill.  The individuals or groups providing information usually give detailed explanations and justifications for their positions.  This results in the inclusion of information both for and against the legislation in the hearing documents.

  • Floor debates in the House and Senate

These are published in a daily record of Congressional proceedings called the Congressional Record.  Floor debates consist of statements by the legislators themselves.  Statements prepared by bill's sponsors may be especially useful in determining legislative intent.  However, different members of Congress may give different reasons for supporting legislation, and they are permitted to amend or supplement their statements after the fact.

  • Committee reports

Committee reports are generally considered the most authoritative  legislative history documents.  They usually contain the committee's reasons for recommending the bill, a section-by-section analysis of the bill, and the views of any committee members who dissent from the committee's conclusions.

Resources for Locating Federal Legislative History

Print sources of federal legislative history:

  • Compiled legislative histories containing all of the legislative history documents on a statute - major pieces of legislation

These can be published as individual books that are assigned call numbers and placed on the shelves.

Look for the statute in a reference source listing compiled legislative histories - for example Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories: A Bibliography of Government Documents, Periodical Articles, and Books by Nancy P. Johnson.

  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.) 

For each session of Congress, USCCAN publishes a series of volumes containing the text of laws passed by Congress (organized by Statutes at Large citation) and selected committee reports.

  • Congressional Information Service (CIS) - complete legislative history of a statute

Compiles committee reports, hearings and other documents on microfiche, as well as provides citations to floor debates published in the Congressional Record. 

The CIS finding tools consist of the Index volumes (by subject; find references to document summaries in the Abstracts), the Abstracts volumes (with document numbers; assess the content of the documents and target specific pages with useful information), and the Legislative Histories volumes (by public law number; all documents except Congressional Record and a brief summary; PL = public laws, H = House, S = Senate, J = joint documents).

  • Congressional Record

The record of all activity on the floor of the House and Senate.  A new volume is published for each session of Congress.  While Congress is in session it is published daily as a pamphlet (daily edition).  At the end of each session of Congress a hardbound set is compiled from the pamphlets (permanent edition). 

Citation examples:

142 Cong. Rec. H8620 = volume 142 of the CR, page 8,620 of the House section of the daily edition

142 Cong. Rec. 11,352 = volume 142 of the CR, page 11,352 of the permanent edition

If you are looking for debates on a specific statute, you will find CR citations in the CIS Legislative Histories volumes.

At the beginning of each report published in USCCAN, you will find a list of the dates when the House and Senate considered the bill, which you can use in conjunction with the bill number to locate material in the daily edition of the CR.

The index will allow you to find information on a piece of legislation or to search by subject.  Interim indices are published every two weeks for the daily edition. 

The index is divided into two sections, one with a subject index, and the other containing the history of bills and resolutions.  When using the history of bills and resolutions index you will need to know the House and Senate bill numbers, not the public law number.  Remember to check the House and Senate listings for activity on the bill, as either could act at any time on a piece of pending legislation.

Quick Reference

To Locate this Type of Document Use this Print Resource Or this Electronic Resource
Bills Compiled legislative histories, CIS microfiche Congress.gov, GPO/FDsys, ProQuest Congressional, Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline
Hearings (Complete hearing documents) Compiled legislative histories, CIS microfiche GPO/FDsys, HeinOnline
Hearings (Congressional testimony) Compiled legislative histories, CIS microfiche ProQuest Congressional, Lexis, Westlaw
Floor Debates Compiled legislative histories, Congressional Record Congressional Record through Congress.gov, GPO/FDsys, ProQuest Congressional, Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline
Committee Reports Compiled legislative histories, USCCAN, CIS microfiche Congress.gov, GPO/FDsys, Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline